Countries around the world have closed their external borders in a bid to control and isolate COVID-19. In these circumstances, criminals are finding new ways to abuse the vulnerability of irregular migrants wishing to enter or travel across Europe and those financially struggling, victimised in labour or sexual exploitation schemes.
The new report of the European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) at Europol looks back at the operations supported in 2019 and the intelligence gathered to draw the possible evolution of these crime areas in the upcoming months.
Enhanced border control measures and travel restrictions put in place throughout the European Union (EU) have led to a shift in the smuggling activities from air to land and sea routes. Small boats are increasingly being used to cross river borders. Migrants are also smuggled hidden in concealments in freight vehicles and cargo trains which still move across borders. The closing of establishments offering sexual services in countries where these activities are regulated may also increase sexual exploitation. The travel restrictions may also complicate the employment of seasonal labour in the agricultural sector and increase the demand for trafficked third-country migrants already present in the areas.
“Early in 2020, the European Union’s Member States and partner countries in and outside the Schengen Area were struck by the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis will have a lasting impact on our societies and economies. The same is true for the organized crime environment where not only cybercrime, fraud and organised property crime is thriving in the wake of this crisis, but the dynamics of migrant smuggling and human trafficking are changing too. To counter this threat, we have to use the great advantage of shared intelligence to target these types of international organised crime and Europol plays a key role,” said Europol’s Executive Director Catherine De Bolle.
During 2019, Europol supported 5,853 cases of migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings, with 19,211 suspects identified; and nine high-profile investigations in hotspots with the continuous deployment of around 30 Europol guest officers.
2019 saw seven EMPACT Joint Action Days with 26 EU Member States and a number of thirty party operational partners (non-EU countries, EU bodies and international organizations). In addition, there were 71 on-the-spot action days with Europol experts; and five strategic intelligence reports created with other Justice and Home Affairs Agencies of the EU (Frontex and EASO).
A Joint Liaison Task Force concerned with migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings was set up at Europol to speed up cooperation in major investigations such as the Essex freight truck incident where 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in a refrigerated vehicle.
The report identifies the main threats in 2019 as:
- Online discussion groups attempting to facilitate mass movements from Turkey to Greece in 2019, detected by Europol and eventually prevented by the Greek authorities;
- An apparent attempt of the Turkish authorities to facilitate large groups of migrants towards and across the Turkish-Greek land border in early 2020;
- Transportation of migrants in life-threatening conditions hidden in concealed compartments of vehicles mostly in the Western Balkans region and across the English Channel;
- Increased use of fraudulently obtained visas and document fraud in general to facilitate primary entries;
- Increased vulnerability to abuse and violence of unaccompanied migrant along migration routes towards and within the EU; and
- Potential vulnerability to exploitation by traffickers of irregular migrants in remote locations.
Sexual exploitation is the most reported purpose for human traffickers in the EU, victimizing citizens from Eastern and Central Europe and non-EU nationals, mainly from Nigeria.
Nigerian poly-criminal networks affect EU organized crime while exploiting their own nationals, recruited locally and indoctrinated through voodoo beliefs and rituals. Their effective dismantling could be impacted by a lack of cooperation with the Nigerian authorities.
In general terms, criminals see emotional and economic vulnerabilities as an opportunity to increase their illegal profits. In 2019, they increased their focus on labour exploitation in less controlled industries such as the agricultural sector, and illegal adoptions. The exploitation of underage victims, forced to commit property crimes or to traffic drugs, is a continuous and alarming phenomenon.